In the opening line of his forthcoming record Waking on a Pretty Daze, Kurt Vile sings: “I gotta think about what I wanna say.” I don’t buy it. Over a transatlantic call from London to his home in Philadelphia, Vile seems like a man who knows exactly what he wants to say, and he doesn’t like having words put in his mouth.
“Sometimes I get asked that question, ‘what are your influences’, and I just want to scream, because there’s so much, you know, I’m listening to new stuff all the time and it all influences me. But I mentioned Tusk to someone last year and suddenly it’s all over the Internet: ‘Kurt Vile is writing the new Tusk’, so I don’t wanna say too much about that kind of thing. Everything’s an influence.”
I suddenly feel a bit guilty. Vile assures me that I “asked it well”, but we both know how tedious a line of enquiry it can be. Nevertheless, it seems particularly appropriate here – anyone who has never listened to Vile’s music could be forgiven for assuming they know exactly what he’ll sound like simply through reading the popular press about him. When Vile is mentioned, the names of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen are rarely far behind. No American musician could feel aggrieved by these comparisons, but they do something of a disservice to the idiosyncrasies of Vile’s work, which is at once both personal and stadium-worthy. This dichotomy is more apparent than ever with Waking on a Pretty Daze.
“Around the time of Smoke Ring [for My Halo, Vile’s 2011 album] I was getting into Jansch and those guys, and there is some of that on the new one”, Vile tells me by way of explaining that intimate, personal element. “But I was listening to some really disparate stuff while writing it, like there was this one Gary Numan song, ‘Are “Friends” Electric’, and some other weird early-80s stuff, that I think worked its way in there.”
That electronic influence is not apparent on an initial listen to Pretty Daze. The overriding aesthetic is still undeniably Vile-esque, with his deceptively complex guitar work complementing a laconic approach to lyrics. “I’ve always played around with long songs,” he states. “I think most of my records have had songs around the six-minute mark, but this time I was more willing to let things run. I was more comfortable writing longer songs, and when I was playing them to John [Agnello, Vile’s producer since Smoke Ring] going ‘it’s another seven minute one!’ at first he’d kinda laugh, and then by the end, it was like ‘another one, seriously?!’ I don’t sit down to write a long song, it’s just how long it takes, and I didn’t start this record thinking it was going to be a double album.”
…Pretty Daze is, technically, a double album. At pushing 70 minutes long, it’s 20 minutes longer than Vile’s previous longest record, 2009’s Childish Prodigy, and as he tells me, he “still thinks of anything that comes on two discs as a double.” But it doesn’t flow like a double album, and it certainly doesn’t feel as long as some doubles have the tendency to. “Sure, and when I think of the double albums that I love, you know, Blonde on Blonde, The River, Exile on Main Street… most of them, really, they all divide into two parts, you can stop listening halfway through and come back to it, and I don’t know if you’d do that with mine.” The opening song, ‘Wakin on a Pretty Day,’ works as a microcosm for the whole album – a time-machine of a nine-minute rocker that flows like a perfect three-minute pop song. “That song follows a pretty familiar structure”, explains Vile. “It starts with that riff, which really is just based on a simple chord structure, and then you’ve got verse, couple of verses, before the chorus, and then that bridgey-bit… It’s not complicated like you sometimes expect longer songs to be.”
The pattern holds for the whole album, which features four tracks that break the seven-minute mark, none of which outstay their welcome. Vile takes a quasi-classical approach to some of the longer compositions, building variations of the same repeating motifs. Though Vile has written longer songs before, they never felt quite so assured as these, nor has he ever come across as such a mature and complex musician.
2012, I remind him, was the first year since 2007 that saw no new Kurt Vile material released. Between releasing albums, EPs, singles, and work with his former band, The War On Drugs, Vile has built up a reputation as one of the most prolific men in rock. This despite being the man behind the lyric “I don’t wanna work, but I don’t wanna sit around all day frowning / I don’t wanna give up but I kinda wanna lie down, but not sleep, just rest.”
“Yeah, that wasn’t really about being lazy toward music, it was just about, you know, not wanting to go to work”, he tells me with a laugh. “I toured the hell out of [Smoke Ring]. I think I went to London three times on the back of that album. I just wanted as many people as possible to hear it. So it wasn’t slowing down, I just didn’t have the time to put anything out last year!” Plus, he has recently become a father for the second time. “Yeah, so that takes up time when I’m here. I have so many different commitments aside from music when I’m here now, and so does everyone else, that it’s hard to not be busy. Like with Adam , he’s one of my really good friends, but we barely see each other, with being on the road and having families. You know, I’m 33 years old now, I’m maybe starting to settle down a bit.”
Nevertheless, Vile seems at ease with his lifestyle. On Smoke Ring, Vile sang of his desire to “hide in my baby’s arms”; the sense of introspection made it easy to picture Vile holing himself up away from the world. …Pretty Daze sounds like a party to which we’re all invited, and has been the perfect antidote to the recent unseasonable cold in London. “The record was written all over the place, on tour, and recorded in different places,” says Vile. “We put some of it down, like that first track, in California, and I think some of that sunny vibe got in there. I wanted to brighten up a bit.”
It also, for the first time, sounds like Violators record as much as a Kurt Vile solo effort. “One day I’d like to make a record that is credited to ‘Kurt Vile and the Violators’, but so far in my career all my albums have felt like solo albums that we then take on tour with the band, but you’re right, on this one I think everyone contributed a bit more. Everyone usually has their say once we’re in the studio anyway,” he says, with what sounds like a wry smile. “And I made sure that it says ‘The Violators’ on the back of the cover art, I did the graffiti for that myself.” The artwork for the album was designed by graffiti artist Steve Powers, who created the vast mural on a wall near Vile’s Philadelphia home. A good reason to buy the LP version, then, to see Vile’s own contribution to the piece? “For sure. Well, obviously I’d tell you buy it on all formats.”
At one stage I find myself quoting Vile’s lyrics back at him to make a point, something for which I apologise, before quickly pointing out that he is fond of quoting himself as well. ‘Runner Ups’ cribbed lyrics from ‘Red Apples’, a cut from his 2009 record God Is Saying This To You, and here he borrows from Smoke Ring stand-out ‘Jesus Fever’. “The thing is all those songs were actually written around the same time, it’s weird, but they’ve been kicking around since 2003, 2004. So it wasn’t really ‘quoting myself’ back then, I just had these lyrics I thought sounded good and used them in different places, and they’ve just stuck.” I find this impressive, given the clear line of development from one Kurt Vile album to the next. Vile, it seems, is equally surprised. “I’m not sure I’ve really changed my approach at all. I don’t really feel like I have. I just keep working like I always have.” Long may it continue.
Walking On A Pretty Daze will be released on 08 April through Matador Records.